WWF report - current food production is unsustainable

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Workers harvest peanuts for Rick Davis Farms outside of Quitman, Georgia.

Commenting on the report from the WWF that indicates a major decline in species and numbers of wildlife globally over the last five decades, the University’s Professor Keith Somerville says ‘expansion of food production on the current basis is not sustainable.

‘The report charts a 60% decline in wildlife population sizes between between 1970 and 2014.  The loss of species and the fall in numbers of free-roaming animals is especially bad in the tropical regions. Freshwater species numbers have declined dramatically, as well as terrestrial species. These falls in species and the resulting impoverishment of biodiversity result from human overexploitation of the environment and development of agricultural systems feeding ever mounting consumption in the northern hemisphere, especially North America.

‘Massive demand for meat, animal feed to produce that meat, cereals, and even crops for bio-fuels are escalating land degradation and reducing habitat for species globally.  The WWF reports says this has seriously affected 75% of terrestrial ecosystems and has had a damaging effect on the welfare of more than 3 billion people.

‘There is no getting away from the fact that first world consumption, boosted in recent years by the economic booms in mega-countries like China, India and even smaller ones like Vietnam, have boosted demand for food, raw materials and wildlife products. This has increased the pressure to grow more either by expanding the land area under the plough or cow, thereby worsening deforestation in rainforest or canopy forest areas, and hastening the loss of diversity in other ecosystems, such as savanna and mixed woodland; or by increasing the use of fertilisers, herbicides and, pesticides to boost crop yields and prevent pest damage.

‘This in turn has affected bees, other pollinators and soil quality.  In the long-term the damage to pollinators and soil quality will have a negative effect on global food security.  Similarly, overfishing and plastic pollution threaten marine and freshwater fish stocks.

‘In these circumstances, expansion of food production ​on the current basis is not going to be sustainable.  The developed, industrial world may still be able to ensure its short-term food security but communities across large areas of central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia suffer perpetual food insecurity as cash crop and other agricultural output is geared to feeding the rich north not the hungry south.  And those communities suffering constant food shortages – with the resulting malnutrition and the human and economic development problems that flow from that – are those with little or no voice in the northern elite dominated debates and international treaties on the environment, biodiversity and conservation.

‘Without those voices you not only condemn a large part of the world’s population to silent hunger but also deprive the world of the knowledge, expertise and environmental survival strategies that local communities living in fragile environments have developed over centuries.  Sustainable, realistic community-driven approaches to environmental protection, conservation and economic development could provide answers to the question of how we stop the rot not the current approaches that have lofty ideals and high-flown rhetoric but depressingly little long-term, positive impact.’

Prof Keith Somerville is a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) at the University of Kent. His book on human lion coexistence and conflict is being published by Routledge in 2019. He teaches at the Centre for Journalism and is a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London.

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